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Tuesday, 18 December 2018

Thank you 2018: Be Kind and Thoughtful 2019

I often wonder about the work of people like Bruce Gilden, Diane Arbus or a bunch of other people, the interplay between who they are, how they make their work, how they frame their work, how (if they're dead) their work is framed. It's something Joerg Colberg talks about here in the curation of Diane Arbus's show, a show where her pictures came with no captions or supporting information. this is what he says about it.

'So a photographer goes to social events at “residences for people with developmental disabilities” and photographs the clearly very unsuspecting subjects in ways that at times find an almost perverse pleasure in what the camera can do to people. Diane Arbus obviously wasn’t/isn’t the only photographer to go about this game (for example, a new Bruce Gilden book just came out). But well into the second decade of the 21st Century, that ought to be the topic for some serious conversations.'

Colberg's ultimate call is for a degree of  kindness in photography and I can wholeheartedly agree with that.

But at the same time, I'm simply not sure about anything in portrait photography. I'm torn between different ideas. I've come to embrace that idea of uncertainty in photography, especially when things get so polarised into clear and definite absolutes.

When I posted the picture above of the Bruce Gilden pictures at the Manchester Art Gallery on my Instagram account, I got a mix of reactions, most of which had a degree of anger.

The size of the pictures, the spectacle, the vulnerability of the subjects, the poverty of the subjects all came up. They were 'the most brutal, ugly and disrespectful pictures' one commenter had ever seen. Gilden was defended by somebody who described him as an insider rather than an abuser, while one great comment, deleted as soon as it went up (why did you do that SR?) laid into Gilden fanboys as 'sausages' - and you get the feeling that's very much linked to the weird machismo of his street photography as featured on old videos of Gilden flashing his thing on youtube.

I interviewed Gilden and some of the people (including Laura Dicken who was fixing for him) about the pictures a few years ago about the portraits above, all made in West Bromwich for Multistory. His basic line is that these are the unseen, the invisible people of Britain, and he's showing them because he comes from that kind of working class community. He could be one of them is the idea (and you can read the entire text below).

Whether I buy that entirely I'm not sure, but I do at least part of the way. I also have a visceral reaction to the control of images, especially when it comes with some kind of moral imperative that is unevenly applied. But at the same time I don't really know. I simply don't know what the long-term effect of these kinds of images is - and how it weighs up against the long-term effects of advertising images or not showing. I don't think anyone knows for all the fire and the fury and the anger. 

And I do think a lot of criticism is based on control, misogyny, class prejudice and a form of colonial moralising. Perhaps that's why sometimes I find myself agreeing with the content of what people say, but not the way they say it. There is a huge control of particular forms of representation and sometimes this is a good and necessary thing, but precedent also shows us the converse can be true.

One of my favourite readings in recent years is Frances Hatherley's thesis on Jo Spence, Richard Billingham, and Carol Morley. This has an abstract that begins

'This thesis reclaims and refigures negative stereotypical images of working-class femininity, proposing an “Anti-Pygmalion” aesthetics (referencing Shaw’s Pygmalion)in which pressure to conform to bourgeois notions of respectability is refused in favour of holding onto aspects of working-class female identity which have been treated as faulty and shameful. It examines a previously under-theorised dimension of the “female grotesque”: its formation under a process of classed construction.

Contesting the disavowal of class identity in much art writing, I explore how it shapes art reception, showing how images of the Anti-Pygmalion female grotesque can provoke sublime experiences in viewers who share an empathetic connection with the work’s presentation of class difference. Against Enlightenment aesthetic theories which associate the sublime with the lofty, this thesis conceptualises it from the perspective of working-class women, connecting it with an excitement and awe that comes from below and bursts up and out.'

Just this week, following the Raheem Sterling racism case, I saw this story on Sterling and the portrayal of  race and people with  learning difficulties in the UK press. It read, 'At the same time, it is not always easy to defend the newspaper industry. There was another jarring moment for me in those early years when it was pointed out that the red-tops didn’t tend to run photographs of people with learning difficulties'.

This idea of people being too poor, too disabled to show also finds a parallel in the American Ugly laws

'So-called “ugly laws” were mostly municipal statutes in the United States that outlawed the appearance in public of people who were, in the words of one of these laws, “diseased, maimed, mutilated, or in any way deformed, so as to be an unsightly or disgusting object” (Chicago City Code 1881). Although the moniker “ugly laws” was coined to refer collectively to such ordinances only in 1975 (Burgdorf and Burgdorf 1975), it has become the primary way to refer to such laws, which targeted the overlapping categories of the poor, the homeless, vagrants, and those with visible disabilities.'

Add the category of protest to those laws and could find it in action recently at the Lianzhou Photo Festival where photographers like Mark Neville had any image not of happy wealth censored from the show. They didn't fit the China Dream by all accounts.

That kind of censorship has parallels Ukraine where both the work of Boris Mikhailove and Sergey and Victor Kochetov (as seen in the excellent photobook Kochetov) made work that was in direct response to Soviet censorship and control of representation. This didn't just include the content, but also included how you framed an image  along with ideas of the body and going beyond ideas of Soviet respectability. Freedom of expression here, showing something that went beyond the politically respectable, was part of the process.

Some of this might be relevant in the criticism of policing. There is definitely a conflation of disgust that runs between Gilden and the people themselves. There is the idea of the correct photograph, the right photograph, the authentic photograph, the uplifting photograph..

On the other side you could add negative representations of  the marginalised, the ways representations of poverty have been, and are, used to debase human beings who aren't wealthy, who fit into some kind of Nazi anti-social element category (and the Ugly Laws link comes from this site on Eugenics survivors  in Canada).

There's a history to this, a truly horrific history that crosses over from anthropology to eugenics and complicates matters further. How one can be clear cut in one's thinking, so polarised that one can dismiss with absolute certainty this picture or that one with no nuance or doubt is beyond me.

One thing I am very much looking forward to (though also with some dread) is unravelling some of these ideas this in a series of posts for World Press Photo over the coming year. I don't think I will have any answers, that's not the point of it.

Rather I'll be looking at some of these questions of how  photography, history and ideas overlap, how contemporary photographers can address the problems of how their work is made, shown and disseminated. It will also look at how voices can be heard in different ways. It's about the powers that are embedded in the practices of making and looking at pictures, and how we can challenge those a little. It's about collaboration, agency and consent. It's about what pictures do, and how they work.
Ultimately, I think it will be about being thoughtful and kind. That's a very simple but very difficult thing. But sometimes it matters more than anything else.

Happy Holidays wherever you are. Be kind for 2019.

Bruce Gilden's Black Country portraits 

Bruce Gilden’s Black Country Portraits are direct in the extreme; close-ups of faces that have the hardships of work, life and family etched into the skin. These are pictures that do not pull punches and are not designed to be decorative. Some people don’t like them. Gilden, however, is unapologetic.

“These people that I photograph are out there,” says Gilden. “I didn’t invent them, I didn’t put make-up on them. They are who they are, pimples, warts and all. When you take a little camera, it becomes a threat. When the photographer takes a picture, it can go further, it becomes a document. But there’s something beautiful in how these people look, their soul, and I don’t believe you can change anything in the world that’s not right if you don’t look at it. It can’t stay invisible.”

The idea of making people visible is something that resonates with Laura Dicken, a locally born researcher who accompanied Gilden on his photographic rounds in the Black Country borough of Sandwell and beyond.

“You get some people and it’s harrowing what they’ve been through especially the drug users, the homeless people, and prostitutes,” says Dicken. “And then you’ve got single mums who are struggling to feed their kids or people who’ve been made redundant. It’s tough stuff all the time.”
“But they deserve to be represented, they are a part of a society, they deserve to be seen and they deserve to heard and the fact that these type of people exist and are struggling and strive for more and can’t get a better life needs discussing. And I think that Bruce’s images are a very powerful tool to open up those discussions.”

The question is how you make portraits in a way that is visually powerful and doesn’t rely on Benefits Street type polarisation.  It’s a tough call for a photographer who is best-known for an in-your-face form of street photography that connects directly to photographers such as William Klein and Daido Moriyama but also has roots in a childhood where his father was a gangster and his mother an alcoholic who committed suicide.

“I had a tough emotional upbringing with my family. You don’t realise how tough it is until you grow up because you think maybe everybody had the same upbringing but they didn’t so I guess that’s  what separates me from others in my photography.”

But with his recent conversion to colour close-ups and a focus on faces, new influences have emerged; Gilden is more personally involved in the people he photographs, and more interested in how they wear their lives on their faces and in their eyes. Now Gilden’s current work links in to the work of artists such as Henry Tonks or Lucien Freud. But where Tonks captured the facial scars made by weapons of war, and Freud used the intimacy of the studio session to capture the reality of his sitters through the texture of their skin, Gilden photographs the marks left on the face by living in a world of austerity; these are faces that wear the fatigue of hard labour, the fatigue of poverty, the fatigue of what can happen when redundancy, abuse or addiction strike.

These are not everyday people with everyday faces in other words. These are faces that know the meaning of hard work; they are weary or exhausted and sometimes spent. And they are not always easy to look at.

“I might also think that people don’t want to look at the pictures because that is something that might happen to them. For example, there’s one picture in West Brom. It’s the lady with one tooth. That’s a great picture. And the funny thing is I showed her the picture and said “What do you think?” And she said, “I’m beautiful.””

“Now I’m not a humanitarian in that sense. I’m human, but I’m not a humanitarian. But the thing is, if you look at that picture and you know that is the response that woman gave to me, you can see all about that woman. Because if you look, that lipstick she tries to put the lipstick on very neatly but she misses; I think it’s on the bottom part of the lip. But there’s an effort made to look good. She must know in her head that’s she’s missing teeth. She was probably a nice-looking woman at one point and now she’s lost it and is having trouble to deal with all that, but there is still that effort made. And she said, “I’m beautiful.” “

Dicken also recognises that effort to look good in Gilden’s pictures, in particular in the image of a lady with rollers in her hair. “She’s got quite a round face and she’s got ruddy cheeks and that is so Black Country. I grew up on a council estate round here, a really really rough one and all of my family are working class. And she reminded me of my Nan. She doesn’t look like my Nan but she reminded me of how my Nan would go to the hairdressers and get a perm, and the type of older women that I grew up around.”

As with all the pictures in the series, this lady is photographed frontally. The picture is made personal. By forcing the viewer to look into the whites of his models’ eyes, Gilden makes the viewer think about who they are and what has happened to them. And because Gilden is selective in the people he photographs, the stories are selective, told through faces that Gilden picked out from the anonymity of the crowds; this is not the Black Country, this is Gilden’s Black Country, a Black Country that echoes the toughness of his own Brooklyn childhood.

“All the people I photograph I’m comfortable with and I assume they’re comfortable with me because I do position their head and I’ll tell them you’re not good or you’re great or you have to do this. For example there was one guy in West Brom, he’s got veins in his face, a big nose. I mean, I thought about him and it breaks my heart. I see this guy coming and it’s relatively cold, maybe three degrees Celsius, and he had bare legs, very, very thin. I’m assuming he’s got cancer, and I took his picture. He could have stayed with us 3 days because what has he got to go back to his room, no-one’s there, no-one talks to him, and you see in his eyes the terror. Here’s a person who doesn’t have that long to live, he’s afraid and I captured what he is.”

“And that’s what struck me, because I’m afraid to die. At the end of the day, I’m photographing me. All these people are me. If you make the wrong choice, this is what you can become, this is what can happen to you. And lots of time it happens to people who are nice people, who aren’t bad people.”
The people represented in Gilden’s portraits have one thing in common; they are working class and they not wealthy. You can find the same people with the same problems in all parts of the UK; people who work hard but are struggling, people who have made mistakes, people who have been let down. But you will rarely see them represented in the press, on television, in novels or even in film or photography. There is no contemporary Cathy Come Home or Boys from the Blackstuff. There is a gap in representation here. Except as figures of scorn, poor people have become invisible in Britain. According to Dicken, Gilden and his Black Country portraits are a way of beginning to fill this gap, to begin a representation of what it means to struggle in contemporary Britain.

“Because of the area and the area’s history, it had been very industrial with very hard work when there was work. And now there isn’t very much work. And things are different. So I think it’s important because it shows people who have been left behind and they are important. They deserve a narrative, they deserve to be represented because they are people with hopes and dreams. They’re strong but they struggle and they’re doing the best that they can.”

“They’re very beautiful pictures about a very difficult subject and I think they do challenge you. It’s pretty close to the bone because you can see yourself in those people. And I found that. I found some of the pictures difficult, especially of the women who are of my age. And I thought, that could have been me really easily. Really easily. They went this way, I went that way. You can just see it makes people uncomfortable because it’s celebrating the all-encompassing human experience that we all have, but some of us have it better than others and it’s really easy to slip.”

 “A lot of the people we spoke to, they had a job and they had a family and now they’ve got nothing, and they’re on drugs, and they’re homeless. And then you’ve got the women who are my age,who have got 2 or 3 kids and they’re scrambling to do the shopping for the kids. They just want to do best for the kids, they’re going without food so the kids have got enough to eat. They’ve got these really difficult day-to-day lives and you just think: that could  really easily be me.”

Wednesday, 12 December 2018

Best Books 2018

It's best books time. My selections range from the brilliant bijou small edition of Emilie Lauwers to the brilliant collaboration of Thomas Sauvin and Kensuke Koike. Click on the links to read more  and see more.

And for the meta-list, go here for Viory Schellekens meta-list.

Emilie Lauwers: Er is Geen Boek (There is no book)

It's both a classic collaborative project, as well as a form of mapping. It maps out the town of Zeldate in a literal sense, put also provides a place and a geography in which the people Emilie worked with are placed centre stage.

Most interestingly, it's a project that is in part about creating a sense of culture in a town that apparently has none, but is even more about bringing out the culture that is already there. It's a psychogeographic project that rethinks a place on the terms of the people who are living there, in terms of cultures that are suppressed within the institutions, expectations and organisations that are seen to dominate the physical and psychogical landscape. It's multi-layered and it's quite fantastic. It's collaborative but it also has a sense of direction and purpose. It's something to be proud of.

Sohrab Hura: Look it's getting sunny outside

‘Look it’s getting sunny outside’ is a love story, between Ma, Elsa and Hura himself. It’s an extension of his photographic struggle to come to grips with his mother’s mental illness, an illness detailed in his earlier book, ‘Life is Elsewhere’. In ‘Life is Elsewhere’, the story was a fragmented, psychotic rendition of Hura seeking external refuge from his home, his family, his mother, and the father that had left them. In ‘Look, it’s getting sunny outside’, as Ma’s condition improves, Hura photographs more in the home, capturing his mother’s relationship with her beloved dog, Elsa. 

On Abortion: Laia Abril

A History of Misogyny: Chapter One. That’s the title of Laia Abril’s latest book and it’s an important one. On the cover of the book On Abortion is erased with a black pen. Scrawled below in pencil is the subheading, ‘And the Repercussions of Lack of Access’.

Flick to the back pages and the very direct and transparent description of the book begins: ‘Every year 47,000 women around the world die due to botched illegal abortions.’

And that’s what the book’s about; the control of fertility, the control of women’s bodies, and the death, suffering and misery that results because of it. It’s a book that’s about something, a book that advocates and is part of a wider body of work on misogyny that Abril is making over a longer period of time.

It’s a book of substance then, and the substance starts with the cover and the endpapers. These feature old newspaper advertisements that feature pills, medicines, and treatments that promise to deal with “the cure of all cases where nature has been stopped in its effects.” It’s a double page spread of synonyms for pregnancy and abortion; “Irregularity, diseases peculiar to females, the most obstinate cases, diseases lurking in the system, cases where nature has stopped,” is some of the language used.

Sergiy and Victor Kochetov: Kochetov

This is pure visual pleasure, the hand-coloured luricki of Sergiy and Victor Kochetov, an example of serious don't-give-a-fuck photography when not giving a fuck was a political statement (of sorts).

Raymond Meeks: Halfstory Halflife

It’s Edenic, it’s ritualistic, and it’s threatening all at the same time. These young men (there are a handful of women in the book) walk along paths and throw themselves into the darkness of a nature that is far from benign. If it is Eden, it’s Eden after the Fall, which makes it a land where misogyny is written into the very soil. This is an American wilderness, half-Promised Land and Manifest Destiny, half Heart of Darkness. Fragments of grass stand in focus against blurred bodies, tightly wound torsos launching themselves into a dark unseen water.

Kensuke Koike and Thomas Sauvin: Three different editions of No More No Less, all wonderful (published by Skinnerboox, Jiazazhi, and TheM éditions)

“People think I make these on one attempt but it’s not true. I always apply the final decision on the original, but even though I try to make it as simple as possible, it takes 20 times to get it right.”

“We made an exhibition in Guangzhou, China. We showed this and at that moment we received many offers from publishers,” says Koike. Instead of going for a straightforward single edition however, Koike’s collaborator and manager of the project, Thomas Sauvin, decided to choose a more complex option; to have three different editions of the same book, to be launched at Paris Photo on the same day.

“I asked the three publishers if they would be willing to be part of this adventure on the same day. I received three positive answers without negotiations on that same day! Three felt like the right number. Two would have been a bold competition. Four would have been redundant. Three felt right. Plus I wanted one in Italy, where Koike lives, one in France, where I live, one in China, where the original album comes from.”

“There were three rules; 1. Make a publication in an edition of four hundred, 2. Have it ready for Nov 1st 3. Don't exchange with us in any way.”

Carmen Winant: My Birth

"Very few people asked me about my birth… Most people… are uneasy at the topic. Voices lower, bodies lean out. It is difficult to address suffering, and for the most part I understand their silence as graciousness. Still, I want to say: anguish is only one in a range of dramatic physical sensations that occur; it was more than the pain endured. I want to reassure: my body split open and poured out in front of strangers. I shed any nervousness on this topic along with the solids and fluids. I want to beg: just ask me."

That’s the introduction to Carmen Winant’s My Birth, a book that provides a visual and written response to that "just ask me" plea, a response that came out of the birth of her first child. The book comprises images of birth; found photographs, anonymous photographs and images of "the artist’s mother in the process of giving birth to her own children."

In Belief is Power: Hristina Tasheva

Bulgaria is shown to be a contested country, a border country where identity comes from resistance to outside forces, in particular resistance against invasion by the Ottoman Empire, the subjugation of christianity and churches (which is very visible in Bulgarian chapels), the defeat of the Turks, the Bulgarian revival, Bulgaria's Communist period, all the way through to the present day where you still have a border country that doesn't quite know who it is or what it is or where it's going. Same as everybody really but with a history that is genuinely on the edge of everything.

 Chris Killip: Set of 4 Newsprint Publications

A brilliant set of 4 newspapers that puts old classics and unseen images into a new, affordable context. There are so many things that are admirable about this series - I'll be writing more on this in the New Year.

Read more in an upcoming issue of Photomonitor.

Andrés Orjuela: Archivo Muerto

In Archivo Muerto, Andrés Orjuela has worked  on original press prints (which were saved by collectors from recycling for paper) from what was the archive of Colombia's El Espacio, a newspaper that for five decades published bloodstained gore from the 'prehistory' of the drug trafficking that has been immortalised, celebrated and glamourised in the Netflix series Pablo Escobar (which I haven't seen).

The glamourisation of Escobar's a sore point with Orjuela. He believes it whitewashes the drug lord  (even phrase like drug lord, or drug baron confer a nobility that shields the reality of Escobar's crimes) and conceals the political and economic realities of the cocaine trade; Netflix, says Orjuela, and all the broadcasters and publishers who are involved in the glorification of Escobar '..maliciously conceal the relations among the CIA, the mafia and the dark regimes from Central and South America.'

Txema Salvans: My Kingdom (Special Edition)

That seems to be the case with Txema Salvans' My Kingdom, a book for which he made phenomenal pictures. It’s a pleasure to look at, but that for Salvans is not enough. My Kingdom is a book of images of Spanish holidaymakers enjoying a day at the beach. When Martin Parr made The Last Resort, he first and foremost made a book of great pictures. There’s a bit of The Last Resort, Spanish style, about My Kingdom.

But there’s a different edge to them as well, a political edge, a bit of Chris Killip if you like, mixed with Ricardo Cases and his Spanish perspective. My Kingdom shows Spanish holidaymakers enjoying their days off against these specifically measured examples of Mediterranean brutalism; flyovers, bypasses, power plants, cement works, pipelines, balconies, apartment blocks, rubbish bins, discarded mattresses, all the detritus of a despoiled, constructed landscape.

(This review is especially for the special edition - you buy this set of stamps and place them in the book at specific points - the stamps fit, the idea fits, it's a great idea. I bought the stamps and everything but then I lost them. They'll turn up)

Matthew Genitempo: Jasper

There is minimal text in Jasper. You read the landscapes, the interiors of the lean-tos and shacks, and they feed into the images of the people portrayed in the book. It’s a lyrical back and forth between imagined psyches, imagined histories, and imagined landscapes. There are no captions to pin things down, to render impotent the ambiguity of the images, the viewer is instead drawn into the resonances between one image and the next.

The theme of escape, and the partner idea of the woods as a place of refuge, a place to escape to, is apparent throughout the book, but the danger here is of romanticising the landscape and the people living within it. “That’s the thing I have to come to terms with,” says Genitempo. “The earlier photographs I took are a lot more romantic, a lot more idealistic, and the later photographs are more the reality of what living in the forest entails.

Read more in the January 2019 issue of the BJP

Tuesday, 11 December 2018

Enlarge Magazine, the perfect Christmas gift

Ok, so this is one of those photobooks that everyone looked at in the house. It doesn't happen often (Showdogs, Early Works, No More No Less.... it's not a long list),

It's a magazine about penis enlargement. It's tongue in cheek, except it's not, except it is, except it's not.

It's a serious issue though, and it's dealt with in strange and interesting ways - and graphically it fits with it's full gloss everything and alternative uses for penis enlargers and cock rings.

The perfect Christmas gift in other words.

Buy the Magazine here. It's 10 euros.

Thursday, 6 December 2018

The Migrant.: The story of a bird, the story of Singapore

The difficulty with the photobook is how good so many of them are in the sense that they fit into design and narrative forms that look like photobooks, that read like photobooks, with statements and essays that support them and look like the kind of statement or essay that you should get in a photobook.

They interrogate, they question, they fit images into sequences and grids that have been pored over on floors, tables and magnetic boards. Images have been flipped around, they have been shrunk, enlarged, put to one side and then chosen again. People have stood round tables and pursed their lips while ruminating on the precise edit which will make all the difference, while in nearly all cases it won't make any difference whatsoever. Photographers have been consulted, contradictory views have been sought, acknowledged, followed and ignored. Multiple dummies have been made, designers consulted, ephemeral materials added, confusions overcome and added to, till by the end of it you have a real life proper photobook.

And sometimes that's all you have. The life has been sucked out of it and you're left with a voice that is denuded of its more human qualities as people have struggled to do the thing they think they're supposed to do.

That's not a problem with Anaïs López's book, The Migrant. It's a book about a Lopez's obsession with the Javan myna. Here's the blurb:

The Migrant tells the turbulent life story of the Javan Mynah. A member of the starling family, the bird is originally from Java (Indonesia) and was introduced to Singapore in the early 20th century through the songbird trade. Today, he is reviled, persecuted and even killed. It is a story about one bird, but at the same time it addresses broader themes such as the complex relationship between humans and animals, the consequences of rapid urbanization and the position of the unwanted outsider.

The story is told from multiple perspectives with multiple points of views. There's a multimedia, a film, a book, a graphic strip, there are screen prints and a booklet. There's even a pop-up wayang myna at the end of the book. There's a lot going on.

We'll focus on the book.  The photographic part details Lopez's encounter with the bird across the island. She sees how it is poisoned, she finds myna bodies on the streets, she encounters a man who hates mynas, who shoots mynas and dreams of setting up Mediterranean style shooting points to exterminate the bird on its migratory routes between Malaysia and Singapore.

The cartoon in contrast  tells Lopez's story of her encounter with one particular bird who has grounding a real myna whichwas a pet in London (the owner got fined £44 for the noise from its singing) then moves to Singapore. It's engaging and rather like a children's story. I remembered it after the fact which is not always the way it happens with photobooks. It tells the story of how the bird came to Singapore from Java, of its persecution, its unhappiness and its eventual escape to Burma, a country where it is revered.

There is a booklet (in the third person rather than the first) which explains the images in the book. These are engaging too, a metaphor both for the narrative of the myna and for the strangely artificial nation-state that is Singapore.

As mentioned, there's a lot going on in the book which is sumptuously produced. Maybe there's a bit too much, but it's good to see different voices, different ways of telling a story coming through. If you want to get away from the figures with hands on hips standing knowingly round an editing table flippling an image one way and then another, and it not making a blind bit of difference, The Migrant is a refreshing change.

The book is designed by Teun van der Heijden. It contains handmade silk screen prints, illustrations by renowned Singaporean cartoonist Sonny Liew and a handmade pop-up by artist Moon Brouwer. The book is a work of art in itself that can be used to share the story of the Javan Mynah with others. Specifications: 240 mm x 318 mm / 120 pages + booklet of 16 pages / full colour / English. 450 copies.

See more (Singaporean) Javan mynas in Robert Zhao's Mynas

See the book on vimeo: https://vimeo.com/291125680
and the documentary about Mynah: www.migrant.nu

Buy the book here

Tuesday, 4 December 2018

Lu Guang: No right to ask questions

Image by Lu Guang - Fake sheep grazing on the polluted ground that poisoned the live sheep that are now dead sheep

It was good to see Magnum China reviewed in New York Times and then see this review of the book by Melanie Chapman on Photobook Journal and to see it on the Photobook Journal's Interesting Books for 2018 list.

Magnum China is a photographic overview of the 20th century in particular. As is noted in the Photobook Journal review, images of the more traumatic events of China's history are absent. There are stories on the human costs of migration, of the destruction of communities during the building of the Three Gorges Dam, of the nerve-racking journey North Koreans make across the country and to freedom. Tiananmen ends with Magnum photographers under lockdown in their hotel. And there are no images in the book of the violent convulsions of the Cultural Revolution (but you can look at Li Zhensheng's brilliant Red Color News Soldier for that). There are no pictures of the suffering enduring during the Great Leap Forward, when a combination of incompetence, brutality and callousness resulted in the deaths of 40 million people people.

But then there are no pictures of the famine  anywhere (yet), there is a visual absence in history. You get many visual absences in history and they're never an accident. Between 2004 and 2005, The New York Times, The Washington Times, Time and Newsweek did not publish a single image of a dead American soldier. The pictures existed, they just didn't get published. There was a rationale for why they didn't get published. But that's a rationale first and foremost and there's also a political reason for why they didn't get published.

That's on one level, on another level entirely is the absence of pictures during what Frank Dikotter calls Mao's Great Famine. Censorship on this level is not just a matter of not publishing pictures, it's not even a matter of not allowing people to take picture, it's a matter of making sure people don't take pictures because they are so scared of the repercussions. It's about getting into their minds and forming false memories from the absence of images.

Taking a picture of a dead body that has been beaten, starved or frozen to death in 1959 is the act of a counter-revolutionary and subject to all the punishments that might entail. If you're a photographer, you don't want that image on your roll.

If you do have it on your roll, then you are making a statement and you might get killed for your troubles. We decry the idea of the heroic photographer, the photographer as witness because so often it's empty rhetoric filled with empty posturing, dumb machismo with a big lens.

But when real danger ensues from making pictures and those pictures tell a story that would otherwise remain untold, or unseen, then perhaps the witness idea is appropriate. So just as photographing a body in 1959 might render you to arrest, so a picture of pollution, or of detainment camps, or tortured bodies might do the same in 2018.

That certainly seems to be the case  Lu Guang, the Chinese photographer who disappeared in Xinjiang Province almost a month ago. It's not a good place to disappear in as Steven Butler states here.

"Chinese authorities must immediately account for Lu Guang's whereabouts, allow him to travel freely, and halt the harsh measures taken against journalists throughout the country," said Steven Butler, Asia program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists. "Lu's detention is a high-profile illustration of the cruel and arbitrary way that China detains journalists and other civilians in Xinjiang."

Lu's  work is sensitive and it's political in a way that benefits everyone, except the wilfully negligent, guilty and corrupt. It looks at  environmental degradation in China, at pollution, at AIDS Villages. It unravels the deeply cynical failures of factory owners, of businesses, the party, the state to deal with issues fundamental to human welfare. The picture above is one from Inner Mongolia, showing model sheep set out to pasture to replace those that had died from contaminated grassland.

Photography does matter here. In an Interview in the Financial Times, he highlighted how photography could change laws especially on the environment, but also the dangers of  photographing.

“The reality in China is you never know if you’re going to get into trouble because there are no written rules,” Lu says. “The only way to find out if something is permissible is by doing it.”

Anyway it was my birthday yesterday. One of my presents was Ma Jian's new book China Dream.

This is from the introduction.

'China's tyrants have never limited themselves to controlling people's live: they have always sought to enter people's brains and remould them from inside. In fact, it was the Chinese Communist Party who coined the term 'brainwashing' ('xinao'). The China Dream is another beautiful lie concocted  by the state to remove dark memories from Chinese brains and replace them wth happy thoughts. Decades of indoctrination, propaganda, violence and untruths have left the Chinese people so numb and confused, they have lost the ability to tell fact from fiction. They have swallowed the lie that the Party leaders are responsible for the country's economic miracle, rather than the vast army of low-paid workers. The rabid consumerism encouraged in the last thirty year and which, along with inflated nationalism, lies at the heart of the China Dream is turning the Chinese into overgrown children who are fed, clothed and entertained, but have no right to remember the past or ask questions. 

Tuesday, 27 November 2018

Utopia/Dystopia by the Sea

Fifty High Seasons by Shane Lynam is a rather beautiful book filled with beautiful images of French Mediterranean resort architecture of Languedoc. 

 This is what the introductory text to the book reads.

In 1963 President de Gaulle initiated a regional development plan know as ‘Mission Racine', to develop a wild and windy stretch of French coastline between Montpellier and Perpignan into a series of resorts.

Avant-garde architects were hired to construct unique and unusual spaces which would be responsive to the local environment and focused on the individual. Although the project provided a new source of income locally, Mission Racine was not only about enriching the region. It included an 18% quota of social housing to allow more French citizens to take advantage of their time off work.

It would become an alternative to the expensive Cote d’Azur without the high rise excesses of similar developments further south in Spain. Fifty High Seasons reflects on the cumulative effect of half a century of tourism on the innovative built environment established by Mission Racine, while showing why I fell for its unique charm.

I'm not sure I fall entirely for its charm. My favourite place in the UK is the Gower Peninsula a) because it's really beautiful and wild looking b) it's two hours from our house c) it's really beautiful and wild looking.

You can go to Rhossili Bay on the hottest bank holiday and you will always be able to find an empty stretch of sand. The southern hordes go to Cornwall because they don't like Wales (it's a foreign country that doesn't respect their snobberies) and so you end up with a place that is relatively empty.

It's also relatively under-developed. There are no high rise resort hotels, no waterparks or theme parks. It's empty and I like it that way.

So when I look at the Mission Racine constructions, I stare with a mix of horror and awe. The buildings are futuristic in the way only 1960s buildings can be, space age in a time when powdered orange juice and dehydrated mashed potato were the future - in Britain at least.

It's a nightmare world of beached liners, lifeguard stations transposed from Miami Beach, Father Ted caravan holiday dystopias, and pampas grass key parties.

It's the future, and it's the past. It's De Gaulle's seaside sublime, organised, seaside statist fun for all the French family. It looks terrible and it looks great, an addition to the catalogue of  recent books on European architectural coastal misadventure by the likes of Txema Salvans, and  Ricardo Cases.

It's the future, and it's the past. It's De Gaulle's seaside sublime, organised, seaside statist fun for all the French family. It looks terrible and it looks great, an addition to the catalogue of  recent books on European architectural coastal misadventure by the likes of Txema Salvans, and  Ricardo Cases.

Buy the book Here 

Friday, 23 November 2018

In Belief is Power

In Belief is Power by Hristina Tasheva is an intelligent and self-aware book that links the history of Bulgaria with the mystery of Bulgarian identity and contemporary and historical responses to migration and invasion respectively.

The idea for the book came about from Tasheva's shame at Bulgarian responses to the migration crisis of 2015.

This is what Tasheva says in her introduction to the book.

what provokes one’s fear of foreigners; what is the life and history of the local population who live near the border, where different political interests intersect; what is the “Bulgarian” identity exactly made up of; how does the border region reflect what is happening across Europe; is there a "beautiful" nationalism that would help a vanishing nation preserve itself (Bulgaria is said to be the fastest disappearing nation in the world); and, finally, what connects us as people?

So nothing's simple there. The very question of what the Bulgarian people are and where they come from is contested (because it's not a simple answer ).

And that comes out in the book in archival images, contemporary images, handwritten text (in Bulgarian with an English translation at the back), and in sketches.

Bulgaria is shown to be a contested country, a border country where identity comes from resistance to outside forces, in particular resistance against invasion by the Ottoman Empire, the subjugation of christianity and churches (which is very visible in Bulgarian chapels), the defeat of the Turks, the Bulgarian revival, Bulgaria's Communist period, all the way through to the present day where you still have a border country that doesn't quite know who it is or what it is or where it's going. Same as everybody really but with a history that is genuinely on the edge of everything.

The book is about all that. It comes from an autobiographical moment, the dilemma of a country where economically survival means migration - so going abroad as Tasheva has done. And survival means sending money home and supporting the domestic economy. What happens to your identity then, what happens to your community. Money cannot replace the human loss of empty villages and empty cities.

So you manufacture your identity, as something emerging from ancient peoples like the Bulgars and the Thracians. It's all a bit vague, but then nationalist agendas are vague. And that vagueness is complicated by its conflation with religious, political and regional loyalities, all of which create a maelstrom of conflicting perspectives that enable nationalism to flourish, in the place that's best for it,  in the arena of aggressively stated vagueness.

And those agendas come with expectations against emigrants, that you 'don't criticise, you build a house,'

Tasheva intersperses her images - a mix of her own and archive images - with snippets of conversation that overlap with and amplify the text, that confirm and contradict expectation, that create patterns of interference that add to the general air of vagueness and uncertainty.

There's racism, against muslims because they're not christian, against roma because they're the wrong type of  christian. They're evangelical, they're  too pagan.

But then rites with a pagan flavour are shown as a central element of Bulgarian identity. As is religion and its trappings, and those trappings include head coverings (but not that kind of head covering is the anticipated response). There are images of churches and  chapels, the accompanying text showing these places of worship are sites for Bulgarians to be granted access to - or not depending on their intentions. Tasheva's intentions, we learn, are not always seen to be good.

The images show fences, newly built to defend against the latest invaders, then there are swords, Nazi salutes, frescoes showing christians being massacred by muslims, artisans, priests and livestock.

Ther'e's an awareness of history, of foreign policy, of political and economic imperatives in the snippets of conversation (much of it hostile to Tasheva's project) captured.

First you go one way, and then you go another until you get the feeling that history is repeating itself, that there is no identity, that (as one comment in the book has it) we are all refugees and that the home that we manufacture for ourself is ultimately arbitrary. Necessary but arbitrary and as such perhaps we should manufacture our home with a little bit of kindness to those who are living there or those who are passing through. Is that too much to ask.

Buy the book here. 

Monday, 19 November 2018

From Beyond the Grave: Sarah Van Marcke's Errors and Residues

‘Errors and Residuals by Sarah van Marcke is a series of small carboard-bound artist's books which explore the archive of a deceased priest,  Ignace D.K. 

The story is that Ignace D.K. died in 2013 in the house that Van Marcke's parents subsequently moved into. His legacy was some kind of strange archive in which the dead Ignace D.K. attempted to assert control from beyond the grave on the preservation of his house, his gardens, his eccentricties. 

He left behind photos, documents, lists, and notes detailing how the house was to be preserved  after his death. He left behind pictures of his living room, all taken from the same view, with increasing and decreasing amounts of furniture. 

He made a nature research at the end of his back garden and maintained a natural pergola to guide the visitor to their horticultural destination. This was to be preserved by the incoming occupant for the next 10 years. 

This is the material Van Marcke works with in this series of artist's books. The book titled 'a view' contains Ignace's images of his forest pathway with a hole punched through them - Van Marcke's creation of a pathway to replicate the one that has been overgrown by nature. Even in death, Ignace's will lives on, as Van Marcke puts the latent powers of his archive into action. 

'A visit' (see above) details the time his house was photographed by a Google Street View van, an event Van Marcke writes about in a letter addressed to Ignace. She imagines his discomfort at an event taking place beyond his control, but also considers the way this temporarily preserves the memory he wants preserved - until the street view is updated and Ignace fades into the background. Archives can be accidental then. 

'A ritual' contains the repetitive pictures Ignace made of his living room and is accompanied by a short story, a rather wonderful short story about a grandmother who needs to look after her grandchild, about the rituals of habit and repetition we use to stay in our comfort zone - that's what Ignace did wiith his pictures, that's what the grandmother does when unexpectedly required to look after her grandchild. 

It's a conceptual affair where the imagined powers of Ignace's archive, or albums, or shoebox, are given life through Van Marcke's three very different interventions. Those interventions have a roughness about them; they're not perfectly formed, they're in line with the eccentricity of the original notes it feels. In that sense, it seems like there is an honesty to them. I'm not sure, but I think that matters. 

This is about an archive of sorts, but it leads with a voice that seeks to fulfil Ignace's wishes. I might be completely wrong in that, but that's the feeling I get. And I think it's what makes the series really thoughtful and considerate in the most human sense of the words. You get the feeling that if Ignace were some weird priest at some afterlife party, Van Marcke would seek him out and let him know that all was well, the tunnel was still there, the room still ordered and the lawn, though not quite as perfect as it could be, still in some kind of order. It's a book to reassure the dead, not the living, and that's quite sweet really. But as I said, I could be completely wrong in that.

Individual copies are available for 9 euros, or it's 22 euros for all three (with two more to be published in February).

Friday, 9 November 2018

Black Art, Black Hollywood, Bristol University and Doing the Right Thing

Whoever Heard of a Black Artist, Britain's Hidden History was a wonderful BBC documentary that looked at the artists, themes and ideas that emerged from the 1960s on about what it meant to be a black artist in Britain.

It looked in particular the Black British Arts Movement, a group that started up to counteract the marginalisation of black artists and to present new ideas on what art was in 1980s Britain (and here's an interesting read on why that time really mattered). Black Art was about marginalisation and the patronising tone of the establishment but it was primarily about great art and the energy and ingenuity that went into making it.

The 1980s was a time which had a huge before and after in photography, a time where the subcultural influences of the 1960s and 1970s were exploding into political and artistic directions with photographers like Vanley Burke, Ingrid Pollard, Clem Cooper, Pogus Caesar, Colin Jones, Dennis Morris, Neil Kenlock and many more creating a politically charged record of the time that extends into landscape, art and fashion. But the programme didn't really touch on that, it was far more conceptual than that. But as some of this work is possibly the most politically relevant and interesting of all the 1970s/1980s documentary work (which currently has such high profile here in the UK) to be made, I'm sure we'll be seeing more of it soon, but then again, I'm not holding my breath.

That's art then. Then there was film. It was really enlightening and entertaining to watch Simon Frederick's Black Hollywood: "You've gotta have us" on TV. It's a series in which Frederick (who also has Black is the New Black, photographs of successful Black Britons on show at the NPG) interviews a whole slew of successful actors, directors, writers and producers from Harry Belafonte to Boots Riley on the barriers, borders, excuses and lies put up to prevent black people making or appearing in films. It's about racism in the film industry then, but actually first and foremost it's about all these amazing films that have been made and the brilliant ways that people talk about them - and the ways that people tried to stop those films being made - the excuses ranged from "People aren't interested in that sort of thing" to responses like "A Black Henry V, whoever heard of such a thing!" which would be fine if movies were about any kind of accuracy, historical or otherwise. "A rabbit that talks, whoever heard of such a thing, A car that goes back in time, whoever heard of such a thing. " You could go on and on.

It gave me the excuse to watch some movies for the first time - films like Carmen Jones. a movie with an all African-American cast filmed in 12 days by producer/director Otto Preminger, and then watch  films again like Do the Right Thing.

One thing I'd forgotten about Spike Lee's film is how considered it is, how thoughtful and considered it is. Also notable is the use of a still photograph in the film. Running like a thread through Do the Right Thing is  the symbolic power of the photograph as the character Smiley tries to sell to whoever will buy them his hand-coloured pictures of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King.

One person who will not buy them is Sal, owner of the local pizza parlour, a restaurant which has a wall decorated with stars of Italian background; Sophia Loren, Sylvester Stallone, Robert de Niro etc etc, they're all there.

And so the film goes on, with every character flawed, imperfect but thoroughly human in some way, every character filled with a spike of life that rubs up against other spikes, until Radio Raheem (another flawed character who plays Fight the Power and nothing else at full volume on his boombox) gets killed by the police. That was then, it could be now.

And then all hell breaks loose, and violence against the person is responded to by violence against property and the demons of the past are let loose on Sal's pizzeria. History isn't static in Do the Right Thing. It's embedded in the present, its traces live on, its traumas evident as the older you get the more injustice you have witnessed, the more it needs catharsis, the more time folds in on itself as repressed anger explodes into the destruction of Sal's pizzeria. It's not a like for like response, it's not an eye-for-an-eye, it's impotent at heart, another expression of rage, but if that's what you've got, that's what you've got.

But then there's Smiley's picture of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, and ultimately that picture does get shown, it does get put up on the wall. Because pictures matter, they contain within them repressed histories, memories, injustices. They can have beauty, they can have violence, they can have depth. They can be like the character Mother-Sister who is all dignity and grace, until Raheem is killed and the depths of pain, memory and unexpressed anger explode into agonised screams of "Burn it Down, Burn it Down".

Pictures are like that. What you show, what you see, what you acknowledge is what matters. It mattered then and it matters now. And acknowledgement isn't much to ask.

I watched Do the Right Thing one day, the next day I saw this tweet on the new staff lounge at the Royal Fort Gardens at the University of Bristol. It features a painting of the Tyndalls Family, a family which had major slave-trading connections, and the Royal Fort was built with profits from the slave and allied trades. In other words they are a family who made their money and built their reputation on the back of kidnapping, imprisonment, rape, torture, and general brutality, all of which somehow evaporated over the distance of the Atlantic Ocean - and time.

It's part of Britain's amnesia and  the historical gaps that you find all the time when you wander around places like Bristol and Bath in particular, where the classical architecture is a constructed facade behind which all kinds of horrors lie. Again, they're a bit like Mother Sister in Do the Right Thing. There is the beauty, but behind it there are beatings, rapes, whipping and lynching. The difference is Mother Sister is on one side of that, the Royal Fort and the Tyndalls Family on the other.

And again, what you show and how you show it matters especially in a city like Bristol. And what you don't show and what you don't say. Sometimes that matters even more.

Thursday, 8 November 2018

Katherine Longly and my favourite book of the year

Last but not least a quick heads up for Katherine Longly's fantastic-but-pricey (it's the product of  a Reminders Photography Stronghold Workshop) collaboration on Japanese eating, disorders and neuroses. If you can't afford it you can see it at the Tipi Bookshop on the Polycopies Boat.

Chris Killip will be signing his brilliant Ponybox newspapers there as well. They are wonderful and look great with real nice pricing touches for the community the pictures were made in.

And Tipi will have some editions of Sohrab Hura's beautiful love story between his mother and her dog Elsa, Look It's Getting Sunny Outside. Which is probably my favourite book of the year.

And if he doesn't then somebody else will. Check out all the signings here from wonderful people at Akina (good luck Simone and Soham), Journal, EA. Witty Kiwi, Rorhof, L'Ascenseur Vegetal, Lyre, Gost, Dalpine,  and many more.

Wednesday, 7 November 2018

Arsenic, The Universe, Panama and Everything

More quick notes on books starting with the Eriskay Connection (and you will find them this week in Paris on the fantastic Polycopies Boat), a publisher who make beautifully designed and quite serious photobooks which approach subjects with a definite aura of sobriety.

Universe by Jos Jansen is a visual exploration of the cutting edge of scientific research. If you want to know what the edges of scientific imaging looks like, this is the book for you. Universe is s a visual template for how we frame this way of seeing, a kind of visual check sheet for the Scientific Gaze - which is where the Medical Gaze, the Surveillance Gaze, the Anthropological Gaze, Eugenics, and I'll stop there because it doesn't end nicely. You want to know where the end of the world will come from. The answer might be here.

The Arsenic Eaters by Simon Brugner slips into that scientific way of seeing - that's what Eriskay is all about - and examines the fascinating world of arsenic eating, but with added folklore and superstition. So it's science and superstition which is really what science is all about when it comes down to it, albeit superstition of a scientific bent. The basic story is a long time ago that is not really that long ago, it's within living memory....

Actually living memory is quite long ago. You've still go people alive whose met people who would have met Napoleon. There are people alive who knew people who knew Mary Shelley when she wrote Frankenstein, there are people alive who knew people who remembered the Opium Wars. I'd better stop there before...

Anyway, people used to eat arsenic and Simon Brugner decided to follow the thing and photographed the archives, the places, the people, and the region of Styria where the practice was especially common. Essentially, Styria was a backward place filled with backward people, ugly backward people who were lethargic, bad-tempered and nasty. Until they started eating arsenic, which made you lively, vivacious and attractive in a mountain environment kind of way. It warded off other diseases (they were all killed by the arsenic) and gave you superhuman strength. The only problem was - stop eating arsenic and you die. There are lots of questions left unanswered in there I know.

In the Heat by Arturo Soto meanwhile offers up an urban examination of the accident of history that is Panama, a country that invented by the USA to enable them to build the Panama Canal. So right from the start, Panama is an extension of the USA. This theme is pursued in In the Heat through images that captures the Panamanian elite's attempt to build a Panamanian Miami on the border with South America. There are images of resistance in the black and white urban landscapes, the sad shadow of Hector Gallego appearing in one image. Gallego worked on cooperative projects in rural Panama and was disappeared for his efforts. The image serves as both a reminder of the brutality of the landowning and military powers that have dominated the country, but also of hope, that things don't have to be this way, that there is something good in this world, there are people we can aspire to be like. And that is something we all need wherever we are.